OAKLAND -- Asmerom Gebreselassie and his brother Tewodros will spend the rest of their lives in prison after a jury decided Tuesday both successfully planned and carried out the killings of their sister-in-law, her mother and her brother on Thanksgiving Day 2006.
After deliberating for about seven days, the jury of 10 women and two men found the Gebreselassie brothers guilty of all 14 charges filed against them, including killing three people, kidnapping a 2-year-old nephew and attempting to kill one other person.
The jury also found that both were guilty of two special circumstance crimes: killing multiple people and killing during the course of a kidnapping. As a result, the Gebreselassie brothers will be sentenced in August to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"For what they did, they deserve this," said Merhawi Mehari, who witnessed the Gebreselassie brothers gun down his sister, mother and brother during a Thanksgiving Day dinner. "I'm happy but I also have loss. It's painful, I will never get my family back."
Asmerom Gebreselassie, 47, and his brother Tewodros, 43, were accused of killing their sister-in-law, Winta Mehari, 28, her mother, Regbe Bahrengasi, 50, and her brother, Yonas Mehari, 17, in what a prosecutor said was revenge for the Gebreselassie brothers' mistaken belief that the Mehari family killed their younger brother and Winta Mehari's husband, Abraham, in March 2006.
While Asmerom Gebreselassie
Abraham Gebreselassie, 42, died suddenly in March 2006 and his cause of death was never positively determined. While the Alameda County coroner could not determine the cause of death, a private pathologist hired by the Gebreselassie family said it appeared to be an unexplainable natural death.
But Asmerom Gebreselassie refused to believe his brother could suddenly die. He became convinced that Winta Mehari and her family killed him to gain access to a $500,000 life insurance policy and to hide a supposed revelation by Abraham Gebreselassie that one of the Mehari brothers was gay.
Asmerom Gebreselassie said during five days of bombastic testimony that he never intended to kill the Mehari family but instead went to their apartment on Thanksgiving to discuss his suspicions that they killed his brother and to tell them that he knew one of their family members was gay.
Once inside the apartment, Asmerom Gebreselassie said, two Mehari family members pulled out guns and
But deputy district attorney Joni Leventis told the jury in closing arguments that Asmerom Gebreselassie could not be trusted and pointed to evidence showing that only two guns were recovered from the scene of the murders, both of which were connected to Asmerom Gebreselassie.
Leventis also used cellphone records to show that Tewodros Gebreselassie had called another brother shortly before the killings, which Leventis said was the signal for Asmerom to come to the apartment.
Tewodros Gebreselassie was needed for the plan, Leventis argued, because he had not accused the Mehari family of killing his brother and by Thanksgiving Day was still welcomed in the Mehari home.
On the contrary, Asmerom Gebreselassie was not welcomed and would have never been allowed inside, Leventis argued and Mehari family members testified.
"I'm just very thankful the jury understood the case and came up with a just verdict," Leventis said. "The Mehari family deserves this; it's about time for the family to get justice."
Asmerom Gebreselassie was lively during his testimony and routinely ignored questions being posed to him and instead shouted at Judge Vern Nakahara, the prosecutor and even his own defense attorney, complaining that he was not receiving a fair trial.
His behavior, coupled with several outbursts from his family during the trial, caused Nakahara to order extra security for the verdict Tuesday morning. As a result, the courtroom was filled with more than a half-dozen bailiffs, and both city police and Oakland Housing Authority police were on notice. Many in the city's Eritrean community live in housing authority apartments.
But the verdict failed to create the outbursts many had expected.
Asmerom Gebreselassie remained calm through the reading to the verdict and only tried to talk to Nakahara once before the jury was escorted into the courtroom. At that time, Asmerom Gebreselassie said he wanted to file a motion for a new attorney.
"I'm going to be convicted because I didn't get a fair trial," Asmerom Gebreselassie said.
Outside of court, attorneys representing the Gebreselassie brothers promised appeals and said they were disappointed by the verdicts.
"It's a grave miscarriage of justice," said Tony Serra, who represented Tewodros Gebreselassie. "Our client did not open the door. There will definitely be an appeal."
Darryl Stallworth, Asmerom Gebreselassie's attorney, said he was stunned.
"I'm just at a loss right now," Stallworth said. "I thought the prosecutor had not proven the case."
The jury thought otherwise.
"The Gebreselassie brothers clearly planned this," Leventis said. "It's been a long time for justice."